For some reason, I felt compelled over the last few days to see if I could make sense of Romans 9 – 11. I’m not sure I’ve ever taught those chapters. It’s hard to get to, much less past, Romans 8 in a 13-week series. And in the Churches of Christ, there’s not been much demand for lessons on those famously challenging chapters.
But as I’ve been studying New Perspective theology and narrative hermeneutics, and have gotten more into the prophets, I thought it might be time to take a fresh look. Besides, there’s a fresh movement to old-school, 5-points Calvinism among the Baptists, being led by John Piper, with some bleed over in the Churches of Christ, and Romans 9 – 11 is a central proof text — for both sides. Well, when both sides are claiming the same text, it’s time to wonder if both sides might have gotten it wrong.
I am an avid reader of John Piper. In fact, I have countless books by Calvinists who’ve taught me a lot about the Bible and God. But I’m no Calvinist. On the other hand, I’m not necessarily committed to the antitheses of the five points of Calvinsm.
I’m neither Calvinist nor Arminian. But if I had to pick, I’d have to choose Arminianism. (I’ll define these terms in a bit.) But I don’t have to pick.
I actually have some sympathy for the Calvinist position. The Calvinist verses are in the Bible and have to be dealt with. But so are the Arminian and Semi-Pelagian verses. And I don’t think the Calvinist position adequately deals with the totality of the scriptures. But, then, neither does traditional Church of Christ teaching. I’m not sure that traditional Arminianism does either.
To have an intelligent conversation about Calvinism, we have to cover some definitions that aren’t usually covered in Church of Christ Bible classes. I do apologize for these, but before discussing Calvinism, we have to know what Calvinism is. And it’s a theology built on long words. I’ll try not to use these unless I have to. Maybe I won’t use some of these at all — but it’ll be nice having them available if I need them.
“Calvinist” refers to those who are intellectual descendants of John Calvin, one of the founders of the Reformed Church. Calvin worked in Geneva, Switzerland and was a contemporary of Martin Luther. One of his disciples was John Knox, who founded the Presbyterian Church, in Scotland. Many denominations follow some or all of his teachings.
“TULIP” or “five-points Calvinism” refers to the five points of Calvinist atonement theology that are often disputed by others. These are —
- Total Depravity.
- Unconditional Election.
- Limited Atonement.
- Irresistible Grace.
- Perseverance of the Saint.
Here are the definitions according to John Piper. Piper is a Baptist minister pushing his denomination toward 5-points Calvinism, known in many circles as neo-Puritanism, as his theology is very similar to that of Jonathan Edwards — famous for his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon (which is not nearly as bad as the title would seem to imply. Edwards actually played a major role in the First Great Awakening).
“Total Depravity” means —
In summary, total depravity means that our rebellion against God is total, everything we do in this rebellion is sin, our inability to submit to God or reform ourselves is total, and we are therefore totally deserving of eternal punishment.
Now even traditional Church of Christ teaching would largely agree with this, even though the Churches of Christ are about as far from TULIP as possible. The difference is that Calvinists are insistent on the phrase “inability to submit to God,” so that a non-believer cannot come to faith on his own — even in the presence of great gospel preaching — unless God through the Holy Spirit softens his heart so that he can respond.
“Unconditional Election” means —
Election refers to God’s choosing whom to save. It is unconditional in that there is no condition man must meet before God chooses to save him. Man is dead in trespasses and sins. So there is no condition he can meet before God chooses to save him from his deadness.
We are not saying that final salvation is unconditional. It is not. We must meet the condition of faith in Christ in order to inherit eternal life. But faith is not a condition for election. Just the reverse. Election is a condition for faith. It is because God chose us before the foundation of the world that he purchases our redemption at the cross and quickens us with irresistible grace and brings us to faith.
Contrary to Church of Christ and Arminian teaching, faith only comes to the elect. That is, election precedes faith. One cannot choose to believe and so become elect.
“Limited Atonement” means —
In other words if you believe that Christ died for all men in the same way, then the benefits of the cross cannot include the mercy by which we are brought to faith, because then all men would be brought to faith, but they aren’t. But if the mercy by which we are brought to faith (irresistible grace) is not part of what Christ purchased on the cross, then we are left to save ourselves from the bondage of sin, the hardness of heart, the blindness of corruption, and the wrath of God.
Therefore it becomes evident that it is not the Calvinist who limits the atonement. It is the Arminian, because he denies that the atoning death of Christ accomplishes what we most desperately need—namely, salvation from the condition of deadness and hardness and blindness under the wrath of God. The Arminian limits the nature and value and effectiveness of the atonement so that he can say that it was accomplished even for those who die in unbelief and are condemned. In order to say that Christ died for all men in the same way, the Arminian must limit the atonement to a powerless opportunity for men to save themselves from their terrible plight of depravity.
On the other hand we do not limit the power and effectiveness of the atonement. We simply say that in the cross God had in view the actual redemption of his children. And we affirm that when Christ died for these, he did not just create the opportunity for them to save themselves, but really purchased for them all that was necessary to get them saved, including the grace of regeneration and the gift of faith.
I quote at length because the doctrine of limited atonement is where Calvinists and others often part ways. Yes, Jesus’ death was only effective to redeem those with faith. The Calvinist says this is because God only elected a few, moved them by the Spirit, irresistibly, to have faith, and so saved them. Non-Calvinists say that Jesus died for all who choose to come by faith. The disagreement is therefore often expressed in terms of free will.
Thus, to a Calvinist God is entirely successful in saving all whom he intends to save. To a non-Calvinist, God wishes that all would be saved but most refuse the invitation as a matter of free will choice.
“Irresistible Grace” means —
More specifically irresistible grace refers to the sovereign work of God to overcome the rebellion of our heart and bring us to faith in Christ so that we can be saved. If our doctrine of total depravity is true, there can be no salvation without the reality of irresistible grace. If we are dead in our sins, totally unable to submit to God, then we will never believe in Christ unless God overcomes our rebellion.
Thus, to be saved, an individual cannot overcome his depravity on his own. Only God can do that through his Holy Spirit. If someone is among the elect, the Spirit will irresistibly change his heart so that he can and in fact will come to faith. He cannot not come to faith. If he is not among the elect, he cannot come to faith.
To a non-Calvinist, grace is resistible.
“Perseverance of the Saints” means —
It follows from what was just said that the people of God WILL persevere to the end and not be lost. The foreknown are predestined, the predestined are called, the called are justified, and the justified are glorified. No one is lost from this group. To belong to this people is to be eternally secure.
But we mean more than this by the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. We mean that the saints will and must persevere in the obedience which comes from faith. Election is unconditional, but glorification is not. There are many warnings in Scripture that those who do not hold fast to Christ can be lost in the end. …
There is a falling away of some believers, but if it persists, it shows that their faith was not genuine and they were not born of God.
(emphasis in original). Therefore, to a non-Calvinist, someone can be saved and then fall away — of his own free will. To a Calvinist, this is impossible, those who fall away were never really saved.
An “Arminian” is an intellectual descendent of Jacob Arminius, who challeged the last four points of Calvinism, but not the first. He taught T, not TULIP. In other words, a classic Arminian teaches that no one can come to faith without the influence of the Spirit to open the convert’s heart to the gospel (called “prevenient grace”). An Arminian teaches that the potential convert can, as a matter of free will, accept or reject the gospel once the Spirit has opened his heart to the preaching of the word.
In contemporary usage, however, “Arminian” is often used of those who reject all 5 points of Calvinism. However, a Calvinist would refer to someone who rejects T as well as ULIP as “Semi-pelagian,” as “Pelagianism” is a works based salvation, which is considered heresy by most. To many Calvinists, the idea of even having a choice is perceived as a “work of the law” and thus heresy, and so “Semi-pelagian” sometimes means “damned because you’re just as works-based as a Pelagian.”
The Churches of Christ have historically been Semi-Pelagian, because, going back to Alexander Campbell, we’ve denied the necessity for the direct operation of the Spirit prior to baptism, asserting that God works on the convert solely through the word.
The Churches of Christ have never been Pelagians, but some are three-quarters Pelagian, because they teach salvation by grace plus works — especially those who would require a doctrinally pure worship service and church organization as a condition to salvation. None deny the necessity for some grace; rather, many deny that grace is sufficient to cover certain doctrinal errors that define Churches of Christ in contrast to “the denominations.”
Will God save both Calvinists and Arminians — even Semi-Pelagians? Yes. The doctrine of grace is essential, but all these fancy terms and complex definitions are not required to go to heaven or to be a good Christian. Indeed, Alexander Campbell was on to something when he counseled us to never divide on “opinions” or “inferences,” and all this fits squarely in the inference camp. We have no business dividing over such things.
But when we discuss what the Bible says about election, it’s helpful to know this background. On the other hand, when we turn to the scriptures, we should put this stuff out of our minds. Paul did not write Romans to resolve the Calvinist/Arminian controversy. He had other concerns in mind, and we should read in light of Paul’s concerns, not ours. Only then can we address our own concerns.